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Wildfire Smoke Found To Be Dangerous To Human Health

 March 8, 2021 at 10:40 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Last year, raging wildfires, especially in Northern California caused weeks of dangerous air pollution. Now researchers at scripts have found that smoke from wildfires is not just bad for your health, but potentially worse for your health than other forms of air pollution. A new study finds that tiny particulate matter in the wildfire smoke can be more damaging to the respiratory system than similar matter from factories and car exhaust. The authors of the study say the findings may change how air quality is measured and health warnings issued during wildfires. Joining me is Tom Cottingham. He is a postdoctoral research economist at Scripps institution of oceanography and a co author of the recent report. And Tom, welcome to the program. Thank you. It's nice to be here. Can you start off by reminding us just what particulate matter is like its size and why it causes damage? Speaker 2: 00:58 Sure. There are, there are several kinds of, uh, fine particulate matter. What we studied in this, uh, work was PM 2.5 or particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. Uh, to give you a sense of what that is like, it's about one 20th, uh, the width of a human hair, uh, it's important because, uh, our body has natural defenses against larger particles, but when they get that small, they can actually get into the lungs and pass into the body. Speaker 1: 01:27 What did researchers look at to determine the health impact of particulates in wildfire smoke? Speaker 2: 01:33 So in this study, we, uh, we took 14 years of data where we looked at wildfire occurrence and, uh, levels of PM 2.5. And then we linked that to hospital admissions for respiratory conditions. And we found that while we were able to separate out the wildfire particulate matter from other forms of particulate matter. And we found that a 10 unit increase in, um, non wildfire related, uh, particulate matter led to a 1% increase in hospitalizations. Whereas the wildfire particulate matter unit for a unit led to a 10% increase. So there was, there was a substantial difference, um, between the two forms of air pollution. Speaker 1: 02:15 And what kind of respiratory problems do these particulates? Cause, Speaker 2: 02:20 Uh, it's a variety of, uh, of, uh, respiratory complaints. The main ones we focused on were upper respiratory tract infections, asthma and COPD, but, uh, the, these particles have been implicated in a lot of different health conditions beyond just the respiratory, uh, impacts. Uh, they, uh, have been shown to increase cardiovascular problems, um, among other things, Speaker 1: 02:45 Why are the PM 2.5 particular it's found in wildfire smoke worse than the same tiny particles in other kinds of admissions? Speaker 2: 02:55 Uh, so it's, it's still, uh, still something of an question. There is evidence in the toxicology literature that there are certain compounds in, uh, in burning organic matter that aren't present in other forms of particulate matter. And, uh, I should say, um, you know, there are things out there that are worse than, than wildfire smoke. So diesel set for example, is quite harmful and certain pollutants that come from industrial plants. But, um, what we found in this study is that, uh, you know, over our domain and time period, uh, the, the wildfire smoke was, was more harmful in terms of, uh, causing hospital admissions than the other sources of pollution. Speaker 1: 03:36 Sure. About how close to a wildfire do you have to be, to be at risk from the potential health effects from the smoke. Speaker 2: 03:43 There's still there's work ongoing to answer, answer that question, but it does seem like, uh, clearly the effects are, are more pronounced when you're closer to the fire. But, uh, we have seen in, in more recent work that, um, even smoke from as far away as Northern California, seems to result in an uptick in, in hospital admissions. So when you think about the fires of 2020, looking at the satellite images, there's just the whole West coast was blanketed in smoke. And, uh, smoke was, uh, seen as far East as, as, uh, as the East coast. So, um, I think certainly for the West, um, any of these large fires can have potential health impacts. Speaker 1: 04:25 Does this possibly mean that when we're finally able to take off our COVID masks, that we may be advised to wear masks during wildfire season? Speaker 2: 04:35 Well, certainly I think the main thing that people can do to protect themselves is, uh, stay inside if possible, uh, during these heavy smoke conditions and definitely avoid any kind of strenuous outdoor activity. And if you're able to stay inside, uh, it may be worth investing, uh, in, uh, improved air filtration system for your home or buy a portable purifier. So those are the types of things that people can do ahead of the fire season. And during the fire season to protect themselves, Speaker 1: 05:03 Your findings of course have a particular significance considering what we know about climate change and its effects on wildfires, because we're likely to be seeing more wildfires isn't that right? Speaker 2: 05:15 That's right. With the changing climate, we're seeing hotter and drier conditions across the Western United States and this leads to a more frequent and more intense wildfires of larger area. So it's definitely something that we need to be thinking about, uh, as we, as we move forward and we've actually done very well with reducing pollution from other sources, but clearly the wildfires are, are not something that you can regulate. So it's something that we need to take seriously. Speaker 1: 05:47 And the study seems to suggest that our air quality standards need to be updated to reflect the extra health risk associated with wildfire smoke. How should they be updated? Speaker 2: 05:59 I think there's certainly a possibility here for changing the thresholds. For example, of the air quality index that's put out by the EPA, um, to reflect the, the source of the pollution. Um, another option would be simply to, to add a flag to the, to the warnings, uh, alerting people to the fact that this air pollution is due to wildfire and should perhaps be taken more seriously. Speaker 3: 06:22 I've been speaking with Scripps institution of oceanography scholar, Tom Cottingham, Tom, thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

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San Diego scientists say wildfire smoke is harmful to the health of people living in the path of smoke from the fires.
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